Interfaith Bible Exhibit Opens in St. Peter's Square

Verbum Domini Runs Through Lent. A working Gutenberg press. Seeing early scriptural papyrus led one viewer to quip: ‘I feel like Indiana Jones.’

An early Bible displayed in the Verbum Domini exhibit in Rome.
An early Bible displayed in the Verbum Domini exhibit in Rome. (photo: Courtesy of The Green Collection)

VATICAN CITY — Visitors to Rome will have the opportunity to view a free, one-of-a-kind exhibition looking at the Bible at the Braccio di Carlo Magno Museum adjacent to St. Peter’s Basilica in St. Peter’s Square.

The exhibition, “Verbum Domini,” opened March 1 and runs through April 15, and offers a collaboration between the Vatican, the Green Collection (aka Museum of the Bible) and the American Bible Society.

It features more than 150 manuscripts and artifacts from the Catholic, Jewish, Protestant and Orthodox traditions.

The exhibit is the brainchild of business executive Steve Green, with the exhibit under the direction of Scott Carroll, both of whom were motivated by their love for the Bible.

“We wanted to make this exhibit available, on faith’s largest stage and one of the most visited religious sites in the world, to people of all faiths and no faith, to engage tourists and scholars alike,” said Green, president of the Hobby Lobby retail chain.

“Verbum Domini” features items “found nowhere else in the world,” arranged in eight galleries from different time periods, said Carroll, who chose the items for display. “They tell the story of how we got the Bible from an interfaith perspective.”

Among the items included in the exhibit are some the earliest fragments of the Book of Genesis from the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Codex Climaci Rescriptus, which is one of the earliest-surviving, near-complete Bibles containing the most extensive early biblical texts in Jesus’ language of Palestinian Aramaic. It also includes previously unpublished and never-before-exhibited biblical papyri, Torah scrolls from around the world and the Jeselsohn Stone, a 3-foot-tall, 150-pound sandstone tablet discovered near the Dead Sea in Jordan. Dating from 100 B.C., the stone contains 87 lines of Hebrew text prophesying the coming of a Messiah who will suffer, die and rise again.

Visitors said that they were struck by the diversity and quality of items found in the exhibit.

“It was incredible to see the Torah scrolls that had been burned by the Nazis, Muslims and Communists and those that had been turned into insoles of shoes and satchels by the Nazis,” said Erin Deatherage, a junior from Western Oregon University in a study-abroad program. She was visiting Rome on spring break and stopped to see the exhibit the day it opened. “It was amazing to see that the word of God has survived through so much persecution.”

’I Feel More Connected’

Fellow student Brianna Sacry, a junior in a study-abroad program from Central Washington University, was struck by the working replica of the Gutenberg press in the exhibit. A costumed museum guide allowed visitors to operate the press to create a take-home printed Scripture passage in Latin.

“It was interesting to see how the press worked,” said Sacry. Deatherage said that the press added an “interactive and fun” element to the exhibit.

“Overall, the exhibit helped me to feel more connected with Judaism and other Christians,” added Deatherage, a Catholic.

In the exhibit, Dominican Father Michael Monshau saw opportunities for university students in his “Introduction to Christian Worship” course at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (the Angelicum).

“The exhibit includes the oldest extant Missal, which would tie in with learning about the development of sacramentaries and liturgies,” said Father Monshau.

“The Bible is not limited to one culture,” said Father Theodore Mascarenhas, biblical scholar and director of the Departments for Cultures in Asia, Africa and Oceania with the Pontifical Council for Culture. “Every culture that receives the Bible responds in their own individual and particular way.”

“I was amazed by things I didn’t know existed,” said Yvonne Dion, a sophomore at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, who is studying in Rome for the semester. “Seeing things like the biblical papyri, I felt like Indiana Jones.”

She said that the exhibit nicely “complemented what we’re studying” in art and architecture and Latin courses.

One piece in particular that Dion was struck by was a work by St. Thomas More, on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, composed while he was in prison awaiting execution.

“As the patron of our college, I would like to read that once it’s published and learn more about it,” Dion said.

The Church’s Role

In addition to the exhibit, the Green family has created the Green Scholars Initiative and an accompanying lecture series on the Bible, under the direction of Jerry Pattengale. The inaugural lectures took place March 2 at the Istituo Patristico Augustinianum and featured Jesuit Father Jose Abrego de Lacy, rector of the Pontifical Biblical Institute, David Lyle Jeffrey of Baylor University, Gordon Campbell of the University of Leicester, England, and Andrew Atherstone of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.

The lectures were well attended, including a group of college students from Thomas More College and Ave Maria University. They added to the exhibit by shedding light on the important role of the Church in preserving and translating the Bible.

“Since the Reformation, especially in England, the thought was that the Church was against translation,” said Jeffrey. This, he pointed out, is far from true. Instead, the Church had allowed for extensive vernacular translations, and, by the 15th century, the Bible had been translated into the vernacular in French, Swedish, Danish, Polish, Italian and a number of other languages. “All were Catholic and done with Church approval,” added Jeffrey.

Gordon Campbell, professor of Renaissance studies at the University of Leicester and a recent inductee into the British Academy, gave an entertaining and informative lecture on the King James Version of the Bible.
“English and American Protestants are in denial about the Catholic influence on the King James version of the Bible,” explained Campbell. While it had been forbidden to use Catholic scholarship in creating the version, Campbell pointed out that much of the Latin language (with no English equivalent) is owed to St. Jerome: “Christian scholarship was almost entirely Catholic.”

“Protestant translators became Catholic for a moment to have the right reading,” said Campbell. “They consulted the Latin Vulgate frequently and borrowed from it without footnoting it.”

Subsequent lectures will take place on March 16 and March 30.

The exhibit’s creators hope to find a permanent home for the extensive Green Collection, which includes some 44,000 items. They are currently investigating possibilities for a permanent exhibit on the Bible in Washington, D.C.

“As an ecumenical event, this is one of the best I’ve seen,” said “Rusty” Maisel of Fort Worth, Texas. Maisel built the replica Gutenberg press in the exhibit. “This is a historical and noble project. It’s a unique event in the history of the Bible.”

Tim Drake is the Register’s senior writer.